State Opera of South Australia has gained a reputation for adventurous programming, which this combination of the German Bastien und Bastienne with the French Fortunio has only reinforced. Performed in their Opera Studio, the singers were close enough to the audience to reach out and touch them, which at times they did. From Row 3 of the tiers I still felt they were singing to – and involving – me, and I’m sure even the back rows would have felt the same. Credit must go to director, choreographer and production designer David Lampard, his assistant Daniella Taddeo and lighting designer Marie Docking for breathing life into both operettas – they must have spent hours creating this remarkably integrated, imaginatively nuanced, cleverly choreographed, double bill.

Desiree Frahn (Bastienne) © Darren Williams
Desiree Frahn (Bastienne)
© Darren Williams

The cast seemed to relished every opportunity to enjoy what they were doing then present it to and involve their audience. While sung in German and French, the spoken dialogue was delivered in remarkably clear English. This worked well, helped by Timothy Sexton’s clever adaptation to a contemporary Australian idiom - most evident in magician Colas’ nonsense words as he cast his spell over the potion he was to give Bastien – still nonsense, but reminded me of the “Modern Major General” patter in The Pirates of Penzance. The translation gave the operettas modern relevance and produced a multitude of laughs as the audience resonated with it.

Lampard noted that “comedy gives us the weapon to laugh at our simplest and most basic needs” – to remind us of all the silly romantic mistakes we had made – and all those deliciously ecstatic moments when we got it right. Bastien und Bastienne, the story of a love sick shepherdess who fears she is losing her beau, was set in a heart shaped formal garden quartered by paths abutting low hedged pens of two dimensional sheep with a background of romantic hearts (hills?). Into the set came heavily sunglassed, ringletted Bastienne, dressed in pretty pink, with an ever-so-appealing puppy dog shoulder bag. Expressive Desiree Frahn had a clear and rich, mellow soprano voice ideal for the role. She sang with feeling throughout, most impressively in her aria “Wenn mein Bastien einst im Scherze” where her sense of puzzlement and rejection was palpable.

Desiree Frahn (Bastienne) © Darren Williams
Desiree Frahn (Bastienne)
© Darren Williams

Jeremy Tatchell's Colas, cast as a music hall character with brown vest and green trimmed coat, flaunting a huge handlebar moustache, sang expressively, and with impeccable diction. His aria “Befraget mich ein zartes Kind” was very moving. Branko Lovrinov was an impressive Bastien, with outstanding acting and expression and a charming voice. His “Mein Lieb stein shone Wangen” really touched me. After the Bastienne – Bastien “Geh! Herz von Flandern! (a forerunner to The Magic Flute?) they linked their shepherds crooks, keeping them together long enough to reconcile in beautiful harmony, then turned their crooks to form a heart (“Dies Herz erkennen”) completing their reconciliation.

From the middle of the audience Colas, glass of wine in hand, rose for his “Kinder! Kinder!” before returning to the stage with selfie-stick to take photos of himself with the reunited couple (and Musical Director Timothy Sexton who stole a place in the photo).

Were La chanson de Fortunio always performed with the vibrant contemporariness and melodrama of this production it would soon regain the popularity it achieved when first performed. It is the story of Fortunio, an ageing lawyer who suspects his wife is having an affair with his young second clerk, just as he had done with his superior’s wife when he was a junior clerk. The opera is set in Fortunio’s garden, so Bastienne’s sheep have been replaced by dozens and dozens of red roses. Baritone Joshua Rowe, looking and acting much like a Captain Mainwaring with a “French” moustache, sang stylishly as the gruff and pompous self-important twit.

Joshua Rowe (Fortunio) and Naomi Hede (Laurette) © Darren Williams
Joshua Rowe (Fortunio) and Naomi Hede (Laurette)
© Darren Williams

Naomi Hede, as his young wife, sang beautifully, her rich pure soprano voice effortlessly conveying her moods – the French accent really suiting her voice. Beau Sandford, second clerk Valentin, secretly in love with Laurette had a remarkable, sweet, simple tenor voice. Meran Bow played Babet, the cook, able to turn a meal of bread and apples into a sensuous feast. Friquet, the junior (Hew Wagner) aptly described her as “plucky, plump and provocative”.

Cleverly, the clerks (Sarah-Jane Pattichis, Lisa Cannizzaro, Courtney Bridges and Desiree Frahn) sang as they copied Fortunio’s secret song of certain seduction – poking their heads up like meerkats to peer over Valentin’s shoulder. Empowered by the charm of the song they then sought conquests of elderly ladies in the audience, presenting each with a rose from Fortunio’s garden.

Two short operas cleverly done. It was encouraging to hear so many laughs from the audience, and so much beautiful singing from the stage. I loved it.